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More than Just a “Good Read”: Literature and Character in Austen’s Novels

There seem to me to be very few [books], in the style of Novel, that you can read with safety . . . can it be true, that any young woman, pretending to decency, should endure for a moment to look on this infernal brood of futility and lewdness? — James Fordyce (66–67)

Can literature corrupt us? It is an old question, dating to the Greeks, answered affirmatively by Plato, and well alive in Austen’s time. For Plato, literature corrupts us in part by depicting “vile and immoral behavior . . . as if it were normal or admirable” (Nehamas). As readers, Plato argues, we learn to act like characters in fiction, copying their behavior regardless of its propriety. Many writers and moralists in 18th-century England adopted Plato’s line of argument, including the prominent minister James Fordyce. In his Sermons to Young Women, Fordyce insists that contemporary novels “paint scenes of pleasure and passion altogether improper for you to behold, even with the mind’s eye” (67). He cautions women against “that fatal poison to virtue, which is conveyed by Profligate and Improper Books” (Fordyce 65). Fordyce and other moralists formed the intellectual context in which Jane Austen wrote Northanger Abbey (Ford), a novel that features significant discourse about the connections between literature and moral character. On a cursory read, Catherine Morland even seems like proof of Fordyce’s argument that novels corrupt young women. In a major scene, “under the influence of that sort of reading” (NA 137), Catherine tries to copy Gothic heroines by venturing to save Mrs. Tilney from an imagined captivity. When considered alone, the scene suggests that novels have nudged Catherine into impropriety and corrupted her judgment, just as Fordyce warned. Most of Northanger Abbey, however, suggests the exact opposite: namely, the obstinacy of character in the face of literature. The foray into Mrs. Tilney’s room is one of only a few instances in which novels significantly alter Catherine’s behavior. For the most part, Austen describes how Catherine fails to imitate her literary heroines; no book seems capable of shocking Catherine out of her mildness. Close readings of Austen’s other novels corroborate the same point: that literature, far from corrupting or improving us, hardly registers on our character at all.

The limited power of literature manifests most obviously in Persuasion, as Laura Clerx demonstrates in her 2015 essay “Worlds of Literature: The Status of Reading in Persuasion.” Anne Elliot is Persuasion’s greatest reader, not only absorbing texts on her own but also teaching Captain Benwick how literature can help him face grief with “patience and resignation” (P 73). Anne is sure of literature’s power—Austen, less so. When Anne repeatedly seeks calm in poetry, hoping to restore herself with a remembered verse, Austen depicts literature as falling short of the task. In one scene, Anne trails Captain Wentworth and Louisa on a walk, trying to keep herself occupied with the Romantic poets so as to manage her emotions. But after Wentworth declares his respect for Louisa, which stresses and excites Anne, “Anne could not immediately fall into a quotation again” (P 61). Clerx reads this latter line as evidence of how “Anne’s quotations are not sufficient” to extract her from a world of stress and anxiety. This minor account, however, only adumbrates Persuasion’s main blow to literature: Captain Benwick’s marriage to Louisa. Anne had recommended Benwick “a larger allowance of prose,” namely the “works of our best moralists” (P 73), and is “astonished” when he falls in love with Louisa so soon after his original fiancée’s death (P 117). Although Benwick eagerly reads and assents to Anne’s recommendations, the moralists’ lesson of “patience and resignation” has little effect on his character. As Clerx summarizes, both the Romantic poets and the moralists ultimately fail to alter Anne and Benwick, respectively:

The power of these words to motivate the actual events of their lives, however, proves itself to be limited . . . Rather, the plot of Persuasion and the revelation of the human nature that motivates many of the events in the novel contradict this idea that reading such works can create heroic people. (Clerx)

Rather than rise to heroic heights on the basis of Anne’s recommended readings, Benwick continues acting characteristically, in accordance, as Anne realizes, with his “affectionate heart” (P 118). Instead of pursuing either Romantic agony or moralistic patience, Benwick acts as he always has acted. Through the case of Benwick, Clerx demonstrates that Persuasion communicates literature’s limited power over character. At the same time, Clerx suggests that literature has a different status in Austen’s other novels, in which “reading, at least the reading of certain works, is a means of improvement.” Au contraire: Clerx’s thesis applies much more broadly to Austen’s work, already suggesting itself in relation to Catherine Morland, who is a perfect demonstration of how reading cannot transform an unheroic person into a heroine.

Any argument about the limited power of literature in Jane Austen’s oeuvre must reckon with Mansfield Park, the novel of hers that most directly addresses the power of books to improve character. In the novel, Fanny Price receives her education at the direction of her cousin Edmund, and her flowering at Mansfield coincides with her continued, diligent reading. As with Anne Elliot, however, literature proves incapable of offering true repose during stressful times. When Edmund leaves Fanny’s room after consulting with her on a difficult decision, he remarks that she will now “empty [her] head of all this nonsense of acting, and sit comfortably down” to read (MP 144). Samuel Johnson’s Idler and other texts, as Edmund notes, rest on her table. However, “there was no reading, . . . no composure for Fanny” (MP 144). Just as Anne Elliot cannot recite enough poetry to block out painful words from Captain Wentworth, neither can Fanny use her various books to distract herself from a real moral crisis. Like in Persuasion, this minor incident, suggesting literature’s limited power to cool emotions, prefigures a major incident about literature’s limited power to form character. When Fanny returns to her parental home and interacts with her sister Susan, “her greatest wonder” about Susan is

that so much better knowledge, so many good notions should have been [Susan’s] at all; and that, brought up in the midst of negligence and error, she should have formed such proper opinions of what ought to be; she, who had had no cousin Edmund to direct her thoughts or fix her principles. (MP 369)

Fanny is shocked that Susan has such good judgment, despite lacking both education and the “early delight in books which had been so strong in Fanny” (MP 388). By comparing two sisters, Austen presents us with a controlled study of character: One sister reads books and receives Edmund’s tutoring, while the other does not. Both subjects of the study, however, arrive at “good notions” and “proper opinions.” Whatever may form character, it clearly owes little to books.

The same question that Susan’s character raises in relation to Fanny may be asked of Northanger Abbey: Namely, would Catherine be a significantly different character if she had never picked up a book? It seems that very little about the novel would change. A contemporary, unsigned review of Northanger Abbey argues that Catherine’s reading habits primarily contribute to an increase in humor in the novel (Fraiman 247). Indeed, very little of the plot depends on Catherine’s taste for novels. Perhaps Isabella and Catherine would have had a lessened intimacy, if Catherine were not also a novel-reader, but it seems unlikely that Catherine and Henry’s marriage would ultimately be affected. Catherine and Isabella’s shared reading habits, for that matter, suggest again how little literature determines our behavior. Both girls read the same novels—and both do so with zeal—yet they act completely differently. Conversely, John is less of a novel-reader than Isabella (NA 31–32), yet he proves equally unscrupulous. How formative can our reading habits be? In Northanger Abbey, character seems to be principally familial: Catherine derives her innocent character from her guileless and plainspoken parents, while Isabella and John Thorpe derive their deceitful ways from their vain mother. Despite Radcliffe’s influence, Catherine retains her family’s typically middling character throughout the novel. Save one or two incidents in the Abbey, it is always “feelings rather natural than heroic [that] possess[] her” (NA 63). Austen delights in mocking Catherine’s heroic aspirations, for Catherine clearly wishes that the novels had altered her more than they in fact have. For instance, when Catherine resolves to “steal out” from the abbey at midnight, Austen offers the reader fun at Catherine’s expense: “The clock struck twelve—and Catherine had been half an hour asleep” (NA 130). Catherine wishes to emulate the novels she reads, but she remains her usual self.

Although Northanger Abbey is obviously a novel about novels, Austen considers the essay at great length, too. The essay, in her portrayal, proves even more open to mockery than the novel. Persuasion, with Anne’s inefficacious recommendation of “our best moralists” (P 73), is but a cap on Austen’s career of mocking moralistic texts. Toward the beginning of Northanger Abbey, Austen describes how her English contemporaries set serious essays in opposition to sensational novels. A young woman feels “shame” reading “Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda,” while, “had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator . . . how proudly would she have produced the book!” (NA 23). As it happens, the Spectator is the publication that James Fordyce most highly exalts in his opposition to the novel, as the critic Susan Allen Ford recognizes in “Ingenious Torments, or Reading Instructive Texts in Northanger Abbey.” Against Fordyce, Austen argues that essays have no more effect on our character than novels do. If novels fail to corrupt, then essays fail to improve. Fanny’s love of Dr. Johnson’s Idler proves superfluous, since Susan achieves good conduct without its supposed influence. In Northanger Abbey, Catherine lies awake debating what to wear, despite having recently read a lecture on the frivolity of dress (NA 49). The essay that Catherine’s mother picks out to console Catherine at the end of the novel meets an even more laughable fate: not only is the content irrelevant to Catherine’s plight, but it goes altogether unread (NA 166; cf. Ford). Austen mocks didactic writers for believing they can truly change people. The major problem, it seems, is that essays cannot entertain; they discuss in “coarse” language “topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living” (NA 23). Catherine reads novels happily but shuns essays because she refuses to read anything “tiresome” (NA 74), anything that will not entertain her.

Essayists of Austen’s day, as Ford details, believed they could both entertain and instruct. Fordyce’s praise for the Spectator owes precisely to its supposed ability to “delight and improve at the same moment” (127), and Fordyce evidently believes that his own sermons delight young women, too (v–vi). Austen ridicules the delusion that young women enjoy such works. In Northanger Abbey’s famous defense of the novel, Austen, as Ford writes, “dispos[es] of the didactic essay and of those who would elevate it above the novel.” Ford details the inefficacious presence of texts like the Mirror, the Rambler, and Fordyce’s Sermons in Northanger Abbey, but one might cite a scene from Pride and Prejudice as more direct evidence for her argument about the weakness of instructive texts. In a humorous passage, Mr. Bennet invites Mr. Collins to read to his daughters, and “after some deliberation he chose Fordyce’s Sermons. Lydia gaped as he opened the volume, and before he had, with very monotonous solemnity, read three pages, she interrupted him” with some gossip (P&P 52). Mr. Collins is amazed at “how little young ladies are interested by books of a serious stamp, though written solely for their benefit . . . for certainly, there can be nothing so advantageous to them as instruction” (P&P 52). Far from managing to both delight and improve, Fordyce evidently fails to do either. As entertainment, the sermons fail because they do not engage their audience. As instruction, the sermons fail because they teach on the most superficial level. To that end, Austen offers us the character of Mary Bennet: Despite her reading, Mary becomes only a “pedant[]” (P&P 17), a simulacrum of wisdom, and never a person of “deep reflection” (P&P 4), as her sarcastic father once calls her. Mary’s tendency to quote texts in comically inapplicable ways reinforces the failure of moralistic texts to instruct deeply (cf. P&P 23). It is telling that Catherine Morland’s real education—like Elizabeth Bennet’s—comes not from reading books, but rather from experiences with new sorts of characters and her own incorrect judgment.

If both essays and sentimental novels fail to instruct, then what is Austen to do? Her novels clearly aim at more than entertainment, for countless readers attest to having learned from Austen, and not simply enjoyed her books. It is an irony that while Fordyce would likely have condemned much of the content in Austen’s novels, Austen is the one whom contemporary reviewers saw as capable of both entertaining and instructing. In an 1821 review, Richard Whatley suggests her works “comb[ine], in an eminent degree, instruction with amusement, though without the direct effort at the former, of which we have complained, as sometimes defeating its object” (253). Whatley alludes to the problem with Fordyce: even when Fordyce seeks to combine the two, instruction often defeats amusement. Indeed, Fordyce writes that “any farther than as it may prove some way or other subservient to [spiritual aims], entertainment should never be admitted into a Sermon” (v). Though Austen has moral aims like Fordyce, she does not fear adding entertaining scenes and characters for the sake of pleasure. One might describe her works as synthesizing the two genres that she satirizes in Northanger Abbey: the sentimental Gothic novels that Catherine reads—“all story and no reflection”—and the moralistic essay (NA 7). Austen injects her stories with a good deal of “reflection,” such that her novels alternate between a narrative voice, which tells a story, and a philosophical one, which speaks in general, analytic terms (e.g., the voice of Pride and Prejudice’s famous opening line). The fact that Austen herself directs the reader in Northanger Abbey to “Vide a letter from Mr. Richardson, no. 97 vol. ii. Rambler” evidences our suspected synthesis—the Gothic novel being combined with the essay (NA 17). It is the essayistic, philosophic tone that distinguishes Austen from Radcliffe, whose novels are nothing but story. Equally important, however, is the fact that Austen is still writing novels, texts that are liberal in their entertainment and indirect in their instruction. Unlike essayists of her day, Austen does not foist a moral system upon us, but rather, in Whatley’s phrase, leave us to “collect” the novel’s lessons (Whatley 250).

In his famous essay “Why We Read Jane Austen,” Lionel Trilling describes his experience teaching a seminar on Austen’s novels. Students in the seminar kept calling her books a “good read,” but Trilling wonders “why a good read should necessarily imply a descent into mere creature-comfort” (Trilling 520). Trilling chafes against the idea that a book cannot be both a “good read” and a morally serious text. Dismissing Austen as a “good read” is akin to Austen’s own contemporaries, who disparaged novels for giving “unaffected pleasure,” while ignoring how, in novels, the “greatest powers of the mind are displayed,” with the “most thorough knowledge of human nature” (NA 22–23). Unlike Fordyce, Austen has no qualms about giving her readers “unaffected pleasure,” but like Fordyce, Richardson, Johnson, and others, she is capable of writing philosophically. Her ability to modify the sentimental novel so that it contains reflection as well as story makes her an ideal teacher—one who instructs while entertaining. By synthesizing the Gothic novel and the moralistic essay, Austen develops a way of giving literature the power to instruct and, perhaps, after all, influence our character, at least in a small way. Austen’s novels are still read—indeed, voluntarily read—with pleasure and enjoyment. They are, like Gothic romances, a “good read.” They are also much more.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park, edited by Kathryn Sutherland, Penguin Classics, 2014.
  • _____. Northanger Abbey, edited by Susan Fraiman, New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 2004.
  • _____. Persuasion, edited by Patricia Meyer Sparks, 2nd ed., Norton, 2013.
  • _____. Pride and Prejudice, edited by James Kinsley, Oxford, 2004.
  • Clerx, Laura E. “Worlds of Literature: The Status of Reading in Persuasion.”  Jane Austen Society of North America, 2015 Essay Contest, College/University Second Place Essay.
  • Ford, Susan Allen. “Ingenious Torments, or Reading Instructive Texts in Northanger Abbey: The Mirror, The Rambler, and Conduct Books.”  Persuasions On-Line 31.1 (2010).
  • Fordyce, James.  Sermons to Young Women. 8th ed., Dublin, 1796.  Eighteenth Century Collections Online.  Gale.  Columbia University Libraries.
  • Fraiman, Susan, editor. “The Customs and Manners of Common-Place People.”  Northanger Abbey. Norton, 2004, pp. 243–248.
  • Nehamas, Alexander. “Culture, Art and Poetry in The Republic.” The Core Curriculum. 1999, New York, www.college.columbia.edu/core/lectures/fall1999.
  • Trilling, Lionel. “‘Why We Read Jane Austen.’”  The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent. Northwestern University Press, 2008, pp. 517–535.
  • Whatley, Richard. “‘Hardly Exceeded by Shakespeare.’”  Northanger Abbey, edited by Susan Fraiman, New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 2004.
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